Rafael V. DeLeon took the road less traveled into an acting career. He played a year of Division II basketball at Averett University in Danville, VA, which just happens to be my hometown, before taking his talents to the highest competitive level at Temple University for his last three years of eligibility. After he graduated, he still had yet to try his hand at acting. Instead, he landed a job working for the mayor of Washington, D.C. in the Executive Office of Boards & Commissions. He decided after working 40 or more hours a week in politics that he was ready to follow his passion for film, so he moved to New York to be an actor in 2011 and hasn’t looked back. Currently, DeLeon is set to star in Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, a revival of the 1986 film that launched Spike Lee’s career, which comes out on Thanksgiving Day. I got the opportunity to talk to him about his journey from college basketball player to actor, his role in the new series, things he doesn’t understand about dating in 2017 and so much more. Read on to see his answers.
There’s a lot of things in your bio that stand out. You were a college basketball player, first at Averett University, which is a program that is close to my heart, and then at Temple University, right?
Right. It’s so funny. There are a select number of people that have even heard of Danville, Virginia so that’s even cooler that you know it and are familiar with the program. I played for a year down in Danville, but I decided that I wanted to play at the highest level of competition in the country and I ended up transferring to Temple University in Philadelphia and finished up my collegiate career, obviously, as a student-athlete there. It was a character building experience but it also showed me that I was able to accomplish anything that I set my mind to at an early age, at 19.
So then was your dream as a kid to be a professional basketball player in the NBA? Or did this collegiate career just kind of happen?
No, it was definitely playing basketball professionally and following that dream. And that had kind of been the vision up until I graduated college.
After you graduated from Temple, you also worked for the mayor of DC in the Executive Office of Boards & Commissions, right?
Yeah, after I graduated from college I ended up going back home to the Maryland-DC area. A friend of mine was working, at the time, for the Mayor of DC. I asked him if there were any job openings and he ended up getting me an interview. I saw two administration changes and I learned a lot when I was in politics.
Did you work for Mayor Bowser or Mayor Gray?
So I actually worked for Mayor Fenty and then also Mayor Gray. I ended up leaving DC in 2011. When Mayor Gray ran against [current mayor] Muriel Bowser [in 2014], Mayor Gray ended up losing the election so I was kind of happy that I relocated to New York when I did.
So you just said you left DC and moved to New York. But I have to ask: how did you get involved in acting? Was there any specific experience you would credit as the moment when you knew acting was what you wanted to do for a profession?
Well, I think that for me, I think there were three primary drivers in my passion for film. The first one was my grandfather. He and I and my cousin, after school when he would pick us up on Wednesdays and Fridays, we would go to Blockbuster and he would let us select a movie of our liking, that was obviously age appropriate, and the three of us would sit around and watch those movies. My grandfather is a huge cinephile, in a way that he has had a love of film for a very long time. As we would watch these films, he would have us guessing what would happen. At the time, I didn’t quite realize it but we were more or less analyzing characters and discovering and uncovering character development, character arcs, that sort of thing. So throughout elementary school and middle school, that foundation was laid.
My mother also did a lot of local theater, so there were a lot of mornings where I was running her lines with her, or if she had an audition then I was the other person. That was always something that she and I always did together. You know how when you have specific things that are specific to one parent, like when you have things that really only the two of you know about, the two of you only experience together? That’s kind of what that was for us. Running lines with her was something I enjoyed doing and she enjoyed as well.
And I would say the third thing is I grew up in the mid-nineties and there were a lot of people of color on TV at the time. Specifically, I think I was heavily influenced by All That, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Family Matters, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, even Martin when I was able to sneak it in and watch. But those shows for me, specifically Fresh Prince, were something that really got me. I didn’t know at the time that’s what it was. But I just recall, at the time, really enjoying what was being discussed, being entertained and laughing.
So when you moved from DC to New York, was your wanting to try your hand at acting the reason you moved or were you just looking for a change and then still somehow ended up in acting?
It was specifically for acting. After having lived in DC and also Philadelphia, I’ve always wanted to live in New York and I wanted to specifically pursue film. It was something I had put off in high school and college. Having had an experience working 40 hours a week or more in government, I was excited to do something that was a serious passion of mine. Youthful naivete, to some extent, but I’m happy I did it.
What are some of your biggest goals in acting right now? Do you have a personal acting “bucket list?”
I do, I do. I think that all actors have a list of roles and films that they would want to be a part of. I think that at this point in my career, I’m open to all types of films and genres. I think that there is something to be said for the story that is being told and what they’re discussing and talking about. I have always grown up loving Indiana Jones so there is a level of action and comedy that I really enjoyed about that. But the answer is I’m open to what comes up and what that quality of work is on that project. But I definitely have a bucket list.
Moving on to She’s Gotta Have It, how you did you get involved with the project? What was the audition process like?
One of my highlights, I would say, of my career thus far was that audition process. When I got the audition, I was already aware that Spike [Lee] was involved with it but obviously the details of how they were shooting it hadn’t come out yet, and they were still casting for the roles. I went into the room and I ended up meeting with one of the casting assistants and we ended putting it up on tape. A few days later, I got a call from my agent saying that they wanted to offer me the role.
The reason why it was such a big deal for me is that Kim Coleman, the head casting director, and Spike, neither of them were in the room at the time. And for me to be offered the role after them having watched the tape was really important because it validated, for me, that I was able to transmit emotion and communicate exactly how I was feeling on camera because obviously that’s a different feeling with stage acting, theatre acting, being in person versus watching it on film. So for me, having them see the tape and select me, I was extremely grateful for it.
Had you seen the original movie before you got the role? If so, were you a fan?
Prior to the audition I had done my general research on the film. When I audition for roles, I try not watch or look at roles that have been done already. As an artist, there is something to be said about authentically bringing in your vision of the role or of the character. So I had not watched the film prior to the audition, but after booking the role obviously I watched it. I had been extremely familiar with a lot of Spike’s work and I had seen most of his films prior to the audition. I did know about who he was and about the iconic status that he has in the film space. One of my first Spike films that I remember was He Got Game with Ray Allen.
Of course. Classic.
That [movie] was something that for me was the first time I was like, “who produced this? Who directed this? Who’s idea was this?”
Speaking of Spike Lee, what is it like working with him? I mean like you said, he’s such a legendary and iconic director.
Spike is really cool. One thing that I’ll say is that, for me, what really struck me is his level of engagement and his authenticity. For me, I didn’t know what to expect. So it was really refreshing to have Spike on set and be very precise and specific with what he was looking for, that made it really easy for me, as an actor, to deliver what he was looking for.
Talk a little bit about your character, Manny Garciela. What is he like? How does it fit into the story?
In the original film, Spike focused on Nola Darling and the three gentleman that were all pursuing Nola and that was kind of the scope of the film. With the show, they’ve built that world out a bit more and my character, Manny Garciela, plays Mars Blackmon’s best friend. I would describe Manny, obviously as Mars’ best friend and road dog, but I would also describe him also as someone who has a lot of different layers in the Hispanic community. What I mean by that is Spike, I thought, did a really amazing job of showing the dichotomy, culturally, that exists in the Hispanic community. An example I would give of that is that with Mars being black and Puerto Rican, he has more of a hip-hop kind of influence where as Manny is a little bit more on the punk rock side. He leans more towards leather than he does fitted caps and sneakers. I felt that the fact that Spike even addresses that on a very subtext level, to me that was a really amazing thing. Because for me, as someone who is biracial, it’s not something that I’ve ever seen on film.
I have a few more fun questions to start wrapping up our time. Since the show focuses on Nola and her trying to navigate dating life in 2017 with three very different relationships, what is something you don’t understand about dating in 2017?
Ooh [laughs]. Great question. I think that people will judge who you are based off your digital and/or social media presence. And sometimes it doesn’t take in to account all of the intricacies of your humanity. I find myself sometimes meeting people who do follow me on social media and they have a preconceived notion about me based on the content that’s posted. I have a lot of things that would be considered nerdy, if you will, that I don’t always share in a certain space due to what I’m looking to have as my aesthetic for my social media. So I do sometimes limit the intricacies of my interests to some extent. I think that people have preconceived notions about some of that stuff. It’s like, “no. There’s a lot more there.”
I know you’re a big basketball and football fan. Being from DC, are you a Wizards and Redskins fan?
I am, yes. And Nationals. And Capitals.
What are your thoughts on their seasons so far?
With the Wizards, their season just started. I’m still hopeful [with them] in the Eastern Conference. It’s going to be a tough, uphill battle for them. They have Boston and Cleveland, which appear to be the toughest contenders in the east. So it’s gonna be a little bit of a challenge, along with Milwaukee; they’re pretty good this year. Football wise, Washington just came off of a huge win in Seattle. As a Washington fan, I will say that we have been tormented and have nightmares of playing against Seattle, whether it was in the playoffs or whether it was in the regular season, we haven’t had much luck. So to go into Seattle this past weekend and get a win, I thought was really a step in the right direction.
Now that you’re going to be starring in a new Netflix show, what’s been the best show that you binged recently? It can be on Netflix or a different streaming site.
Right now, I really enjoyed Ozark. Jason Bateman was phenomenal in that role and I think that it was really well done and smartly written and the way they shoot it is unbelievable. So I would say Ozark is one and Mindhunter. I’ve been checking that out recently. The first episode, I was a little bit on the fence about. But I will say that, I’m on episode 9 now, that episodes 2-9 have been, they’ve lived up to the hype.
You kind of alluded to being a big nerd but since we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us, what’s something that you nerd out about?
I have a couple so I’ll limit it to three. I like nerding out about anything that is space related. So recently, NASA discovered an unidentified object that entered our solar system but it was not following the trajectory of an asteroid so they aren’t exactly sure what it was, but they are aware that it did enter. So that’s something that I really, really enjoy following and reading about.
I enjoy reading about tech innovations, specifically what Elon Musk is doing with Hyperloop and Space X and autonomous driving and stuff, I find extremely interesting. Also renewable energy, specifically because of space travel, is fascinating to me.
I also enjoy chess, I nerd out about it a lot. I follow a lot of the chess masters. I don’t watch all of their matches because they take time before they make moves, but I’m definitely reading recaps, following along with that [laughs].
Well you just taught me something because I didn’t realize that recaps of chess matches were a thing and now I kind of want to go read one.
Yeah, totally. They have recaps of these matches with these chess masters and you’re able to look through each of their moves and so I play chess on my phone against my father, my uncle, my cousins, strangers and I like to study a lot of chess opens and I’m working on my middle game and my end game right now. But they allow for you to look at the recap and see, in a very succinct way, what their moves were and so you’re able to kind of analyze what their openings were, why they opened a certain way, how they modified things as things changed, etc. So for me that’s something I always check up on and try to learn from.
Photo Credit: Timothy Rosado